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Soviet Spacesuits and the Dawn of Space Exploration

It’s hard to believe that the first human-made object to orbit the Earth — a Soviet satellite called Sputnik 1 — was only launched on October 4th, 1957. It’s even harder to believe that a Russian cosmonaut named Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin (1934 – 1968), became the first person to journey into outer space aboard the Vostok 1 just four years later. And yet, on April 12th, 1961, at 6:07 am by Coordinated Universal Time (CUT), Gagarin’s spacecraft was launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome located in present day Kazakhstan.

According to The Earth Gazers: On Seeing Ourselves (2017) by Christopher Potter, at the time of departure, the dialogue between Yuri Gagarin and Mission Control’s Sergey Pavlovich Korolev (1907 – 1966) — the project’s leading rocket engineer and spacecraft designer — went as follows: “Preliminary stage… intermediate… main… lift off! We wish you a good flight. Everything is alright,” stated Korolev. “Let’s go!” enthusiastically replied Gagarin.

The mission concluded after the spacecraft spent 108 minutes in orbit. On the way back, at an elevation of about 20,000 feet, Gagarin ejected from the descending capsule and landed on the ground using a parachute. Because Soviet engineers had not, at the time, designed a reliable breaking system for the spacecraft, the cosmonaut had to return to Earth separately from the capsule.

“He landed in a field, where a farmer and her daughter spotted the strange sight of a man clad in a bright orange suit with a large white helmet. Gagarin later recalled, ‘When they saw me in my space suit and the parachute dragging alongside as I walked, they started to back away in fear. I told them, don’t be afraid, I am a Soviet like you, who has descended from space and I must find a telephone to call Moscow!’”

Soviet Spacesuits and the Dawn of Space Exploration | Spacesuit at the Memorial Museum of Space Exploration  in Moscow, Russia via Mikhail (Vokabre) Shcherbakov | CC BY-SA 2.0 Wiki

The Vostok 1 spacecraft was a part of the Vostok programme, which carried out six crewed spaceflights between 1961 and 1963. During these missions, cosmonauts were required to eject their spacecrafts and land separately from their capsules. Their spacesuits, the SK Series, were designed with the required ejection in mind. The first of these was SK-1; it was developed specifically for Yuri Gagarin and is, therefore, the first spacesuit ever used in outer space.

“Notable features include a visored helmet that is not detachable from the suit; the inflatable rubber collar for use in the event of water landing; the bright orange nylon oversuit, which has a mirror sewn into the sleeve to help the cosmonaut locate hard-to-see switches and gauges; and the gray-checked pressure liner with connectors for life-support and communications hoses. The suit also has leather-palm gloves, heavy leather boots, and a leather-covered radio headset.”

The SK Series was developed by the Research & Development Production Enterprise Zvezda — originally called Plant No. 918 — a Russian manufacturer of life-support tech for aviation and spaceflight that was founded in 1952. Though it was first started to build full pressure suits to assist with breathing when the air became too thin during high-altitude flights, it expanded to design spacesuits starting in 1959.

Zvezda is still in operation today. The company designs, develops, and produces technologies for civil products, aviation, and space. “Most of the out-of-this-world artifacts developed at Zvezda over its six-decade history are now displayed inside the company's recently renovated demo hall,” writes Anatoly Zak for Popular Mechanics. “Resembling an airlock of some interplanetary cruiser, this long gallery is lined with glass capsules that contain original spacesuits worn by pioneers of space exploration during their actual missions.”

Soviet Spacesuits and the Dawn of Space Exploration  | Space suits being used to work on the International Space Station | Public Domain Wiki

There are a few different types of spacesuits: EVA (extravehicular activity) spacesuits are worn to keep people alive in the difficult conditions found in outer space. IVA (intravehicular activity) spacesuits, which are lighter and more flexible than the EVA types, are worn inside pressurized spacecraft as an additional safety precaution. And, IEVA (intra/extravehicular activity) spacesuits are used for both.

To make sure people can survive outside the spacecraft, EVA spacesuits must provide air, be comfortable to move in, protect against low density and pressure, and maintain steady communications with a spacecraft. They must also be strong enough to withstand dangerous space debris as well as extreme temperatures that can range between 248 and -256 degrees Fahrenheit. The first EVA spacesuit to ever be used in space to perform a spacewalk was also designed by Zvezda.

Due to the success of the Vostok missions, the Soviets adjusted their spacecraft to carry multiple crew members, ushering in the second series of manned Soviet expeditions called Voskhod. On October 12th, 1964, Voskhod 1 carried three cosmonauts into the Earth’s orbit. Because none of them were going to perform a spacewalk, and because the aircraft was no larger than it was during the Vostok missions, the crew did not wear spacesuits for their flight.

This changed on March 18th,1965, with the launch of Voskhod 2 carrying commander Pavel Belyayev (1925 - 1970) and pilot Aleksey Leonov (1934 - 2019). Once they reached orbit, Belyayev deployed the inflatable airlock while Leonov strapped on his Zvezda-made life support system. Then, Leonov crawled into the airlock, closed the hatch behind him, and patiently waited for Belyayev to equalized the pressure in the airlock with the zero pressure in space.

Soviet Spacesuits and the Dawn of Space Exploration  | 1965 Stamp Commemorating the First Space Walk | Public Domain Wiki

Reportedly, Sergey S. Pozdnyakov, the general director of Zvezda, was worried about how Leonov would react to being in outer space:

“The main doubt was the psychological condition of the person who was in outer space. In the ship, you have walls, you have communications with Earth, you are protected. But to go into outer space… the stress is, in my opinion, so high, that to predict how a person will behave in this situation is impossible.”

Soviet Spacesuits and the Dawn of Space Exploration  | Leonov's spacewalk (Ria Novosti/Science Photo Library) | Fair Use Wiki

But, during the 10 to 12 minutes Leonov spent floating in space — tethered to the airlock with a cord that prevented him from drifting off — the cosmonaut took motion pictures, practiced maneuvering in free-fall, and made other observations before receiving the signal to get back inside. “My feeling was that I was a grain of sand,” later recalled Leonov.

“It was then I realized how deformed my stiff spacesuit had become, owing to the lack of atmospheric pressure. My feet had pulled away from my boots and my fingers from the gloves attached to my sleeves, making it impossible to reenter the airlock feet first,” writes Leonov in Two Sides of the Moon (1975). “I had to find another way of getting back inside quickly, and the only way I could see to do this was pulling myself into the airlock gradually, head first.”

Soviet Spacesuits and the Dawn of Space Exploration  | The space suit worn by Alexei Leonov on the first human space walk. On display at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum via Nijuuf | CC BY 3.0 Wiki

At the time, Leonov was wearing a modified version of SK-1 called the Berkut spacesuit. According to Mann, “his air supply was strapped to him in a metal backpack with a relief valve that vented away heat, moisture, and carbon dioxide.” To deal with the problem, Leonov had to let out some of the high-pressure oxygen through the relief valve — an extremely dangerous procedure that could, possibly, result in oxygen starvation.

“But I could feel my temperature rising dangerously high, with a rush of heat from my feet traveling up my legs and arms, due to the immense physical exertion all the maneuvering involved. It was taking far longer than it was supposed to,” recalled Leonov. “Even when I at last managed to pull myself entirely into the airlock, I had to perform another almost impossible maneuver. I had to curl my body around in order to close the airlock, so Pasha could activate the mechanism to equalize pressure between it and the spacecraft.”

Although other serious problems continued to plague the mission until its completion, the spacecraft finally landed in the middle of the Siberian forest after completing 17 orbits (26 hours) in space. “I don’t normally sweat much” later stated Leonov, “but on that day I lost 6kg in weight.” The bravery of Yuri Gagarin, Pavel Belyayev and Aleksey Leonov, as well as the spacesuit technologies engineered by the Research & Development Production Enterprise Zvezda paved a safer way for astronauts across the world to explore the limits of outer space.


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